The university that produced the past three U.S. presidents may not be so political after all — at least when it comes to the state of Connecticut.
In a poll of approximately 350 Yale undergraduates conducted this week by the News, 86 percent of the student body said they were “somewhat” or “very” interested in national politics. But 45 percent of students said they were not interested in Connecticut politics, which startled some community leaders but came as no surprise to those familiar with Yale students’ political involvement.
The poll, which had a five percent margin of error, also revealed that 23 percent of Yale students not from Connecticut are registered to vote in Connecticut, while 49 percent are registered in their home states. Seventeen percent of students who are American citizens are not registered at all, but of those who are, 71 percent said they plan to vote today while 29 percent said they would not. Overall, approximately 40 percent of students who said they are American citizens are not voting today.
There is, in short, a political identity crisis today at Yale.
On one hand, there is a great demand for political engagement on campus as evidenced by the dozens of Yalies running for office around the country, popular courses such as Studies in Grand Strategy and often-packed Yale Political Union debates. For those connected to the student-dominated Ward 1 aldermanic races, Dwight Hall social action groups or the “get-out-the-vote” efforts taking place on campus today, Yale is political heaven.
But many professors and students said they are hard-pressed to characterize the University as politically active. Some said the campus is dominated by pervasive apathy, while others insisted the Yale political culture is all talk, no action. Maybe, some observers proposed, it’s just the nature of Yale.
“I think students are very disengaged in what is going on the world,” said Steven Smith, master of Branford College and a political science professor. “It’s a little disturbing, especially as Yale becomes increasingly self-conscious of itself as a global institution. Students are in their own little world here.”
Strategy and apathy
But when it comes to Election Day, many Yalies venture out of that little world to cast their votes at home. According to the poll, more than two out of every three registered voters do vote in person or by absentee ballot.
For many students, the decision whether to vote at home or in Connecticut is a matter of political strategy. Students from small states with close races often register in their home states, while those from large states like California said they have switched their registration to Connecticut because they feel their vote will have more of an impact on national politics.
Students said they see a particular potential to influence politics on a national level in this year’s Connecticut Senate race, which several students said influenced their decision to switch their registration away from their home state. While 61 percent of students in the poll said they either did not know or did not care enough to have an opinion on John DeStefano Jr., the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and New Haven’s mayor, only 39 percent said the same for Democratic senatorial candidate Ned Lamont SOM ’80.
Jay Schweikert ’08 cited the Senate race as the reason he switched this year from being registered in his home state of Texas to being registered in Connecticut, but he said he is not particularly interested in Connecticut politics. He said he will probably switch his registration back in time for the next election cycle.
“The specifics of this election year … make me want to vote here,” Schweikert said. “In general, I’d be more likely to vote in my home state because I care more about things locally there.“
Students interested in local politics are decidedly in the minority. Only 10 percent of people surveyed said they are “very” interested in Connecticut politics, compared with 36 percent for national politics, and 46 percent of respondents said they are not interested in Connecticut politics at all. Some said they do not see Connecticut as more than a temporary home.
Sean Mehra ’08 said part of the reason he believes students are not as involved in local politics is because the media covers national politics far more aggressively, so it is easier to stay better informed. He said that personally, he does not find local politics particularly relevant because he does not intend to stay in Connecticut after he graduates, and as a student local issues such as taxation do not affect him.
“I don’t think Connecticut politics affect me because I see my state in Connecticut as transient,” Mehra said. “National politics affect me wherever I am.”
Although 86 percent of students polled said they are somewhat or very interested in national politics, Yalies said they see mixed levels of actual participation in politics on campus. Students mostly agreed that their peers have strong political opinions, but many said they believe for most students, political involvement does not go beyond informal debate in the dining hall.
The 40 percent of students who said they are not voting today gave a variety of reasons for their abstention. While some students said they simply did not have the initiative to order their absentee ballot, others said they simply see no reason to vote.
Meijin Bruttomesso ’08, who described herself as “completely apathetic,” said she will not be voting today because she thinks politics are irrelevant to her life.
“I don’t feel they affect me directly,” she said. “I don’t concern myself with [politics] because I have a lot of other things to worry about.”
Elizabeth Humphries ’07 said she thinks the lack of interest in local politics contributes to what she sees as the widespread political disengagement of the Yale student body.
“I think people get caught up in how hard it is to change anything politically,” she said. “I think if people were more willing to focus on local issues, they wouldn’t feel that their efforts were so futile.”
Talk and action
But for the 36 percent of students who described themselves as “very” interested in national politics — whether they are canvassing door to door or toasting candidates at Mory’s — political engagement is anything but futile.
Last year, Silas Kulkarni ’06 attended a Yale Political Union debate that he said epitomized what he considers to be the most vibrant political atmosphere of “any university ever.”
The guest was John Bolton ’70 LAW ’74, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and he was stirring the packed crowd, inspiring both hisses and applause. Kulkarni asked Bolton a question about the morality of nuclear weapons, which he said inspired many students afterwards to approach him and discuss the issues at stake.
“Here’s a guy who’s not the president, he’s not the governor, he’s not your senator,” said Kulkarni, who was simultaneously a member of the Party of the Left and the Party of the Right. “He’s an ambassador, but people want to get up there and ask him these aggressive questions and get really worked up about what he says, because they care passionately. That kind of spirit pervades this campus.”
Daniel Thies ’07, a Tory Party member who campaigned last spring for the presidency of the YPU on a platform of promoting more student debate at union events, said he does not have a problem with the perception that Yale students always talk, but never act, since students should not be acting in a community that they barely understand.
“One of the things that irks me about political involvement at Yale is that some people think that their four years here is a chance to come in and change things in New Haven or be involved in some local cause,” he said. “I see what we’re doing at the Political Union as a very important sort of prerequisite of political involvement later in life, really a part of our education more than part of positive activity now.”
But then again, when the Party of the Left was founded last spring, its chairman appointed one student to serve as “An Activist” in an attempt to bridge the gap between political debate and community involvement. Rachel Hansen ’09, the current An Activist, said that because the liberals who comprise her group are “very concerned about taking action and being socially responsible.”
“We can have debates about policy — things that are not activist — guilt-free, and then have a separate part of the group that is dedicated to being in touch with activist work on campus,” she said.
Hansen and her fellow “doers” might find more like-minded students in groups like Students for a New American Politics or the Yale College Democrats or Republicans. This year, the Democrats on campus have record-high membership with 100 active students, according to membership coordinator Eva Bitran ’09, even though this is not a presidential election year.
Bitran said she attributes this year’s record membership to personal outreach. She said she does not believe that apathy is at the root of the fact that among the 48 percent of students who identify themselves as liberal, only a small percentage are members of the College Democrats. Students who do get involved in the organization often do so because they are looking to take political action on the local level, she said.
“Those who are interested in local politics really devote their all to it,” Bitran said.
Sarah Armstrong, chairwoman of the Connecticut Union of College Republicans and a junior at Connecticut College, said the Yale College Republicans are more active this year than other organizations around the state.
“Especially at Yale, the College Republicans have been great,” she said. “It’s the most recruiting at Yale [that] we have done in years. It hasn’t been easy and we’ve still done pretty well.”
In the poll, only 10 percent of undergraduates described themselves as conservative.
The students who have recently served as Ward 1 Alderman displayed mixed reactions when presented with poll results indicating a lack of strong interest in local politics. Ben Healey ’04 said he still thinks the amount of engagement in local issues is “incredible.” But Nick Shalek ’05, the current alderman, said that while last year’s aldermanic election saw record turnout, there is still much work to be done to raise consciousness of city issues.
“The challenge of people like me and other folks like me interested in New Haven is to spread information,” said Shalek, who is launching an electronic newsletter this week for students in his ward. “I think the aldermanic race last year was a pretty good indication that if students are made aware of the issues in New Haven, they can become interested and will become interested.”
Though this election has piqued the interest of fewer students than Shalek might have hoped for, many students have, in fact, formed opinions, according to the News’ poll.
For the Connecticut gubernatorial race, 30 percent of students said they have a favorable opinion of DeStefano, compared to 11 percent who said they have a favorable opinion of M. Jodi Rell. As for the U.S. Senate race, 41 percent of students said they have a favorable opinion of Lamont, 27 percent of Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 and 4 percent of Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger.